The recently released U.S. ‘anniversary’ edition of Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, has provoked heated debate and untempered scorn across the internet, with websites from Salon to The Wheeler Centre pillorying Faber’s choice of cover design. For those unfamiliar with The Bell Jar it is a landmark piece of proto-feminist fiction, published in 1963 shortly before Plath’s suicide. Much like Catcher in The Rye and On The Road, it’s a book which is often cultishly adored by teenagers upon their discovery of it on a dusty bookshelf.
The general reaction can be summarised by what Jezebel had to say: “For a book all about a woman’s clinical depression that’s exacerbated by the suffocating gender stereotypes of which she’s expected to adhere and the limited life choices she has as a woman, it’s pretty f***ing stupid to feature a low-rent retro wannabe pinup applying makeup.”
Fatema Ahmed, writing for the London Review of Books, points out that marketing departments of publishing houses seem to have defaulted to a particularly discouraging position: “treating fiction by women as a genre, which no man could be expected to read and which women will only know is meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover.”
If you’ve taken a tour through the aisles of your local bookshop lately, you may have noticed this trend afflicting several classic books written by women, principally Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. Both of these books have been re-designed to imitate the Twilight book covers. The Wheeler Centre points out that the trend extends to contemporary novels written by women, with Lionel Shriver’s novel Game Control about a murder conspiracy re-packaged in soft pastel hues for lady readers.
Zoe Triska, in The Huffington Post, addresses the trend when she asks, “Because these novels were written for women and by women, did it just made the most sense to give them ridiculously sexist book covers that presuppose a number of things about the entire female sex? The irony in all of this is that these female authors were trying to overcome these feminine stereotypes in writing these books.”
Yet the reality for the publishing houses, as Triska acknowledges, is that “they need to make money in order to stay in business. These embarrassing book covers are probably selling more and maybe even resonating more with teen girls than the original book covers had.” Yet the sentiment is essentially that expressed by one of the marketing manager’s for Melville House: “”How is this cover anything but a ‘f**k you’ to women everywhere?”